poetry for hard times

Poetry In Times of Crisis

In an article by Michael Detra in the Washington Post, he discusses reading John Burnside’s The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century. In this book, Burnside says that 20th-century poetry matters because it “continually interacts with contemporary social conditions and political crises” — something he refers to as “the noise of the time.” He continues by saying that poetry “aims in every possible way to reaffirm the world that we actually inhabit, in all its vital, messy, beautiful, tragic reality. It is not so much the case that poetry makes nothing happen as that it attempts to reveal what is already happening, to offer a context to events and so propose a means by which the noise of time can be re-experienced as the music of what happens.” 


This stopped me in my tracks. I reread it several times. In the times we are in now, most of you reading this from inside your homes where you have been for days as we wait out the effects of COVID-19, poetry is here to remind us of our humanity. And while it won’t solve all our problems, personal or international, poetry offers context and can also put things into perspective for us. In times of crisis, art thrives and allows people a place to be their most empathetic, imaginative, understanding and human selves. Here are 5 poems to read in times of crisis. 


“I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone” by Rainer Maria Rilke

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone


to truly consecrate the hour.

I am much too small in this world, yet not small


to be to you just object and thing,

dark and smart.

I want my free will and want it accompanying

the path which leads to action;

and want during times that beg questions,

where something is up,

to be among those in the know,

or else be alone.

I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,

never be blind or too old

to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.

I want to unfold.

Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;

for there I would be dishonest, untrue.

I want my conscience to be

true before you;

want to describe myself like a picture I observed

for a long time, one close up,

like a new word I learned and embraced,

like the everday jug,

like my mother’s face,

like a ship that carried me along

through the deadliest storm.


“blessing the boats” by Lucille Clifton 

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it will

love your back may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that


“Nothing Twice” by Wislawa Szymborska 

Nothing can ever happen twice.

In consequence, the sorry fact is

that we arrive here improvised

and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,

if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,

you can’t repeat the class in summer:

this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,

no two nights will teach what bliss is

in precisely the same way,

with precisely the same kisses.

One day, perhaps some idle tongue

mentions your name by accident:

I feel as if a rose were flung

into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me,

I can’t help looking at the clock:

A rose? A rose? What could that be?

Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day

with so much needless fear and sorrow?

It’s in its nature not to stay:

Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer

to seek accord beneath our star,

although we’re different (we concur)

just as two drops of water are.


“Vespers” by Louise Glück 

In your extended absence, you permit me 

use of earth, anticipating

some return on investment. I must report 

failure in my assignment, principally 

regarding the tomato plants.

I think I should not be encouraged to grow 

tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold 

the heavy rains, the cold nights that come 

so often here, while other regions get 

twelve weeks of summer. All this 

belongs to you: on the other hand, 

I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots 

like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart 

broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly 

multiplying in the rows. I doubt

you have a heart, in our understanding of 

that term. You who do not discriminate 

between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence, 

immune to foreshadowing, you may not know 

how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,

the red leaves of the maple falling

even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible 

for these vines.


“Believing in Iron” by Yusef Komunyakaa 

The hills my brothers & I created

Never balanced, & it took years

To discover how the world worked.

We could look at a tree of blackbirds

& tell you how many were there,

But with the scrap dealer

Our math was always off.

Weeks of lifting & grunting

Never added up to much,

But we couldn’t stop

Believing in iron.

Abandoned trucks & cars

Were held to the ground

By thick, nostalgic fingers of vines

Strong as a dozen sharecroppers.

We’d return with our wheelbarrow

Groaning under a new load, 

Yet tiger lilies lived better

In their languid, August domain.

Among paper & Coke bottles

Foundry smoke erased sunsets,

& we couldn’t believe iron

Left men bent so close to the earth

As if the ore under their breath

Weighed down the gray sky.

Sometimes I dreamt how our hills

Washed into a sea of metal,

How it all became an anchor

For a warship or bomber

Out over trees with blooms

Too red to look at.